Why Grad School is Kind of Like Lego

Worst Idea LegoOne thing that drives me nuts about higher education is that it provides no assurance that people will learn to think. It is remarkably easy to acquire vocabulary and ideas, and then unwittingly abuse them because you don’t actually understand the key ideas you are trying to work with.

So this got me thinking, that grad school is kind of like building with Lego. I always sucked at Lego. I was playing with my friend’s kid a few weeks ago, and looked at the bazillion different blocks on the floor around me, and thought “I got nuthin.”

“You could follow the instructions,” my young friend suggested helpfully.

And then I thought of The Lego Movie. The neat thing about the movie is its premise on the well understood fact that the real fun and creativity of Lego is going off script and making your own stuff. Unless, like me, you really suck, and then you just make things that aren’t really things:

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know… it’s… it’s a thing. I don’t know what I’m making. Maybe it’s a boat.”

Following the instructions might help me learn how Lego “goes together” enough that I could someday build a boat with clarity, intention and creativity. Or a cool robot ship that shoots lasers in 12 directions like the one being built the five year old beside me, who’s clearly got this down better than I do.

Higher education would be much better if we provided more instructions about how to think. Just like Lego provides instructions to help you learn how to use the different sizes, shapes and colours of blocks in useful and imaginative ways, so that when you go off on your own, you’ve got some skills to put the blocks together in new ways that work.

“That Idea… Is Just the Worst.”

One of the running gags in The Lego Movie is lead character Emmet’s creation, the “double decker couch.” Because he, like me, has not learned to build, he makes something that is earnestly creative, but… well… stupid:

Lord Business: Wait, hold up. A double decker couch?

Bad Cop: Yes, sir.

Lord Business: Really? So it’s like a bunk bed couch? Is that what it’s like? That’s weird. If you’re sitting in the top middle, how are you gonna get down without climbing over someone? If you’re sitting on the bottom, and you’re watching TV, are you gonna have to watch through a bunch of dangling legs? Who’s gonna want to sit on the bottom? It is literally the most useless idea I have ever heard.

Lots of students are like Emmet. They’ve got the bricks (words and ideas) but they don’t have instructions or opportunities enough to practice and reach a point where they can build well on their own. What follows is a case in point. I don’t want to refer to the specific source of this story, because I must be a bit unkind about the commentator’s thinking to illustrate the problem.

To provide some context, the comment below was made in response to an blog author’s assertion that education (that is, education in schools or colleges) is not a public good. From the perspective of economics, education can’t be a public good.[1] In economics, the distinctions between public, private, club, and public goods is a very useful way to classify things that are produced, and to talk about how they are distributed among a population of people.[2]

So here was a response to the original author’s very simple statement that “Higher education is not a public good:”

The traditional ideal was that education was for the (not a) public good meant that it advanced knowledge, had a socially just component, it was a search for truth, and developed engaged civic citizens. It wasn’t until globalization and specifically neoliberalism thwarted that ideal in favor of competition for developing learning commodities for the ‘knowledge economy. Hence what we have is an agenda for privatizing every last social institution, creating an exorbitant debt burden for students, and competitive academic darwinism amongst faculty. Infusing economic parameters for human development and learning fails miserably. It cannot be reduced to auditing or quantification. The mind is a terrible thing to privatize or commodify. this battle is on the semantics, however the deeper battle is for the soul of high education.

If you’re not an academic sort, you probably wanted to quit reading by the third or fourth line here because the commentator is using all sorts of sexy words like “globalization,” “neoliberalism,” “social Darwinism,” and “quantification.” These are words you learn in grad school, and they can be strung together to produce the Illusion of Smartness where you’ve in fact failed to learn some very basic skills: understanding and rephrasing someone else’s point(s) accurately, and responding with agreement or critique, offering your own reasons and evidence.

The problem is that the commentator above has used a big vocabulary, but completely missed the point of the discussion. Because education is not a “public good,” – and here was the original author’s point – we can’t treat it as if it can be delivered like air, or scenery (examples of true public goods). If education is not a public good, then we’re going to have to have some tough conversations about who can and can’t access education. As with any other non-public good, things get funky because education is subject to costs of production, prices, and competition. It’s a scarce resource.

The commenter, in response, argues that education should be available to everyone because it’s good for society. This is simply confusing education as a public good (a statement of fact, or about how the world is) with education for the public good (a statement of value, about how the world ought to be). In arguing that it is morally wrong to refrain from offering unlimited access to higher education, s/he completely misses the point that precisely because education is not a public good, it is not freely available to everyone, even if we believe in our heart of hearts that it should be.

Curriculum: So Many Blocks

The disconnected argument would bother me less if it wasn’t couched in language that suggests that the author has enough education to have some pretty fancy, specialized Lego blocks (words and ideas), yet has little skill or insight when it comes to putting them together. And that’s what formal education does with many, many students. In my present role, in which I do quite a bit of reading about curriculum, the point is often made that we’re addicted to content. When teachers and professors are too busy delivering massive amounts of content, they don’t have much time left in a class to figure out whether kids are learning to do anything useful with it.

Curriculum bloat – too much content – is a scourge of formal education at all levels, from kindergarten right up through higher education. Instructors and teachers, through coercion, oblivion, or some kind of unexamined compulsion, dump “knowledge” on students like they are dumping fifty boxes of Lego blocks on the floor so that students end up with a jumble of stuff, and little or no clue how to put it together in elegant, meaningful, helpful, or creative ways.

We end up with big words that hide poor understanding and poor reasoning. Or with a double decker couch.

[1] This is a statement of agreed upon fact in the field of economics the way we all have to agree that a tree is a tree before we start talking about where to plant a tree, how many trees to plant, or whether to cut a tree down. (We need to agree upon what words and ideas mean before we can have a conversation or an argument.)

[2] For more on this model for understanding the things we buy, sell and use, here’s the Wikipedia link for public goods.

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